Iran, though being part to the NPT, launched a clandestine nuclear program in the eighties in the wake of the invasion of its territory in 1980 by Saddam Hussein, whose own program was too well known. After years of covert efforts, it probably came to the conclusion that producing a bomb all by oneself was a more intricate business than it had foreseen. When its clandestine program was exposed, it had been able to produce fissile materials only at experimental scale : a few milligrams of plutonium (seven kilograms of plutonium are needed to produce a bomb), and a few grams or uranium enriched slightly over 1% (twenty to twenty five kilograms of uranium enriched to 95 % are needed to make a bomb). Up to now, and whatever the intentions of the Islamic Regime, no sign of significant progress beyond these fairly modest achievements has been exposed by the intensive work of the IAEA inspectors who, whatever the difficulties, have always been allowed to do their job in Iran. The Intelligence community, in United States and elsewhere, agrees that Iran is still five to ten years away from the bomb, would it decide to break all its commitments and go full speed ahead, North Korean or Indian style. Iran, on its side, has come to understand that such a venture could be very costly indeed, and would by all means kill in its cradle the significant nuclear industrial program it wishes to develop to escape the all too foreseeable fate of oil-producing countries.
Therefore, non-proliferation wise, the Iranian case is still perfectly manageable, and the excitement aroused abroad has been amplified by other motives : memories of the past, and as for today unacceptable behaviour of the Islamic regime in many other fields. If the solution lies in a Regime Change, the nuclear file can certainly be used as a lever, but progressing here through trials and errors presents the risk of serious damages, before all to the international system of non-proliferation itself. It is for instance crucial that the so-called IAEA Additional Protocol, vastly reinforcing the capacities of investigation of its inspectors on the territories of its member countries, be ratified by a sensitive country like Iran, which has already applied it but only on a voluntary and transitory basis. If a new Iranian regime willing to abide by the highest international non-proliferation standards cannot be brought in, the second best choice is obviously to try to find an acceptable solution with the existing regime.
Strictly in terms of non-proliferation, and keeping one's head cool, such a solution could be at hand's reach. First, there is no use in insisting on confidence building as a prerequisite to a long-term agreement. Good formulas must be resilient to non-confidence and the whole system of international safeguards and inspections is based on this very principle. Second, worrying about the hidden intentions of Iran is of no practical use. Even if there were today in Iran a government that we could fully trust, who can predict how things would turn out if rose somewhere in the Middle East a kind of Son of Saddam? Third, we should check with the IAEA experts up to what point they can guarantee with absolute safety the instant exposure of any diversion of uranium from a sensitive installation like the type of uranium enrichment plant that the Iranians are keen to develop. The IAEA will most probably answer that with a few technical requirements it would have no problem in controlling a modest research and development uranium enrichment unit of a few hundred centrifuges (to put things in perspective, 500 centrifuges of the kind developed by Iran would have to spin for about four years to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb).
The Iranians, on their own side, as much as they wish to have their own nuclear fuel production capacity in order to escape the monopoly of external nuclear fuel suppliers, can be brought to understand that they have no use for an industrial enrichment unit (i.e. tens of thousands centrifuges) as long as they do not possess a significant park of nuclear power plants. This means seven to ten plants yet to be built and assuredly fifteen years of tranquillity. They have also already let understood that they have no intention of enriching uranium beyond the 3 to 5 % level necessary to feed nuclear power plants, pretty far from the 95% necessary for a bomb, and we know that the slightest breach of such a commitment would be easily detected by the IAEA safeguards system at most in a matter of weeks. The Iranians have also hinted that they could be convinced to forsake all activity conducing to the production of plutonium, the second avenue leading to the bomb.
All right, say the critics, but what if the Iranians develop a clandestine enrichment program thanks to the technological progress acquired trough a legitimate small-scale enrichment unit? First, the question would rise as well if Iran would officially accept the European and American request to renounce all enrichment activities, thus leaving unemployed hundreds of dedicated scientists and technicians. Covert research on enrichment at the scale of a few dozen centrifuges is an easy matter in all cases. The difficulty arises when one tries to escape all controls while building, putting together, and feeding with tons of natural uranium the thousands of centrifuges necessary to produce fast enough the material necessary for one and then several bombs. And this is where the role of the Safeguards Additional Protocol is vital. With the capacities of investigation offered by the Protocol, the international community, putting also to use its intelligence resources, can be assured that no Iranian clandestine nuclear program could reach undetected a significant stage.
On such bases, and with hard work on fine prints and technicalities, we can build with Iran a long-term agreement which would provide the absolute safety that, however dark the intentions of Mr.Ahmadinejad or his successors may be, Iran would not be able to engage into the production of a nuclear bomb without being fully exposed at the very least two to three years before coming close to the bomb. For the international community, this is safe and ample time to mobilize and to react, by power of conviction, or if necessary by forceful means. Non-proliferation wise, this is enough for our tranquillity. And the satisfactory implementation of such an agreement could hopefully open the possibility to address with some better chance to progress the other very sensitive questions indeed raised by the nature and policies of the present Iranian regime.